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Richmond region school systems celebrate their teachers of the year
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Richmond region school systems celebrate their teachers of the year

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It was a school year like no other. An unprecedented pandemic changed everything about education for the 2020-21 school year — everything, that is, except the dedication and determination of thousands of teachers who put the area’s school children first each and every day.

School systems around the metro Richmond region recently named their Teachers of the Year — two instructional technology resource teachers, a curriculum writer and an instructional designer. All four will go on to be considered for the 2021 Region I Superintendents Teacher of the Year in September.

Hanover County

Years ago, one of Stacie Taylor’s professors uttered the words: “Your students need more sweat on the brow.”

The sentiment stuck with Taylor, an instructional technology resource teacher at Hanover County’s Bell Creek Middle School, who set about encouraging, inspiring and guiding students to dig deep in own their educational journey.

Taylor is Hanover’s 2021-22 Teacher of the Year. The April 26 announcement shocked the 18-year teaching veteran, a Henrico County native and lover of all things beachy. (Two of her three cats are named for Outer Banks beach towns and the third, well, he was found down there.)

Taylor was the Bell Creek Middle Teacher of the Year in 2010 and the 2018 recipient of Hanover’s Superintendent’s Professional Development Scholarship.

Other than a short stint as a long-term sub early on, Taylor has only taught full time in Hanover. Her passion started young — ask her how she spent her allowance as a child. She started out teaching middle school history at Bell Creek — not her first choice, she admits — she wanted to teach science.

She moved into her current role in 2012, a position she’d been eyeing. She works now as a coach for both students and colleagues, helping teachers incorporate technology in ways that bring content to life, and helping students get the most out of it.

“I’ve always had a thing for technology,” she said, and as she settled into her role as a teacher years ago, “I learned that technology — weaving it into instruction — can really be impactful.”

All Hanover students have Chromebooks this year, something of an emergency action taken by the school system last summer when COVID-19 upended education, so Taylor has her hands full. There’s one instructional technology resource teacher in each middle and high school, and one for every two elementary schools.

“Kids know how to use technology for entertainment and social reasons, not necessarily how to use it to learn,” she said. “We like to use technology to increase opportunities for communication, collaboration [and] critical thinking to connect kids with a more authentic audience” beyond their teachers and peers, “to tear down the four walls of the classroom and connect them with people all across the world.”

For example, teachers in specific disciplines can connect with experts in a particular field via the computer, who can talk and share with students during class from any part of the world on a subject or topic they may be learning.

She said good teachers should never stop learning or trying new things in their classroom. They should, she said, observe as many other teachers as possible early in their careers, no matter the discipline. There are lots of little subtleties in teaching that sometimes don’t come naturally — classroom management practices, or transitioning from one subject to another — that are best learned by seeing others.

“Truly, our kids deserve it,” she said. They “deserve great teachers and to be a great teacher, you’ve got to keep learning.”

That professor’s sentiment sticks with her.

“I really like to put the onus of the work on my students,” she said. She approaches lesson planning by thinking: “How can I make the kids do the critical thinking, the listening, the speaking, the reading?”

Taylor jokes that in her next life, she’ll be a marine biologist, specifically so she can save the sea turtles — all of them. She and her husband, Randy, often spend time at the popular North Carolina beaches, specifically walking and driving the beaches for sea turtles that need help. In winter, she said, cold temperatures can stun the turtles, so when they wash up on shore, they can’t get back to the water.

Taylor was chosen from among the school system’s roughly 1,400 teachers. She said she’s “still shocked.”

“You think about what everybody’s been through this year. Everybody’s just gone really above and beyond,” Taylor said. Despite the challenges over the last year, “it’s been really a cool experience seeing everyone rally together and the resiliency and persistence to get the job done.”

Chesterfield County

From a young age, Raegan Dinelli’s father told her to never be scared to be uncomfortable and to take risks.

She carried that lesson into her career, from teaching for a year abroad to taking on a new role outside of the classroom after teaching in one for over 15 years.

This past school year, Dinelli left her fifth-grade classroom at Clover Hill Elementary to become the school’s instructional designer. In her new role, Dinelli assists teachers, parents and students with instructional applications like Canvas, and shows how to access, use and understand them.

Reached days after being named Chesterfield County’s 2022 Teacher of the Year and 2022 Elementary Teacher, everything remained a blur. Dinelli first spied her husband through a Clover Hill Elementary cafeteria window as she rounded the corner on Friday, May 8; then, her mom and kids. She’s still reeling.

“I am so hugely honored because there are amazing things going on in this county, and we motivate each other. I think it’s just a neat place to me,” Dinelli said in an interview.

At the end of her second year of teaching at the former Robert E. Lee Elementary School, Dinelli was faced with her school closing. Unsure of what to do next, Dinelli turned to her father’s advice and taught abroad in Cairo, Egypt, for a year, despite never flying before.

Upon returning to the States, Dinelli began teaching fifth grade at A.M. Davis Elementary, where she herself was once a student.

In her 15 years of teaching in Chesterfield, Dinelli has taught fifth grade at A.M. Davis and fourth and fifth grades at Clover Hill before taking on her new role.

“Raegan exemplifies the outstanding work done by our teaching staff during this most challenging school year,” Schools Chief Merv Daugherty said in a statement. “She was creative, inventive, and resourceful, helping make the transition as easy as possible for all teachers and students at Clover Hill.”

A product of Chesterfield schools, Dinelli also attended Robious Middle School and graduated from Monacan High.

Dinelli always respected her teachers and has clung to their “pearls of wisdom,” especially those that centered around hard work. She realized her teachers, who had families of their own, also loved her and made her want to give back.

“I wanted to be one of those teachers that kids remembered and made a lasting imprint on their hearts and their lives,” she said.

While Dinelli misses being in the classroom, she enjoys coming to work every day in her new role.

“I’m so thrilled [that] I did get out of my comfort zone like my dad always said ... I was very uncomfortable because I didn’t know what I was doing, but I figured it out and I’ve had great people along the way guiding, helping and suggesting.”

Henrico County

For Eric Byers, teaching during the pandemic has had its ups and downs. He’s gotten to wear many hats and have a hand in changing the culture at Highland Springs High School, the only school where he’s ever had a full-time job. He also lost a close friend and fellow curriculum writer in Henrico schools to suicide.

“It’s been a tough year,” he said. “That was tough. We started right around the same time with our curriculum writing stuff, and we were good friends. There’s still times I want to reach out and give her a call. ... I think when we start to meet and she’s not going to be there, it’s going to be tough.”

One of the ups, which he said he’s sure his late friend would be proud of, was winning Teacher of the Year for the 2021-22 school year, the first school year to start virtually under the pandemic.

“I’m sure she’d be very excited, and honestly, I would put it right back on her and say it could have very easily been you,” he said. “It’s okay to feel that way, but reach out and get resources. It’s okay to get the help that you need. You don’t need to keep it a secret.”

The lingering impacts of trauma have been present at the East End high school since Byers started working there. The high school is made up of mostly Black students, and two-thirds are economically disadvantaged. While teaching at a school where some students have tough home lives is challenging, Byers said he also finds it rewarding. It’s inspired him to get involved in implementing systems to reward positivity.

“You have to genuinely care about the kids; you have to take an interest in their lives,” he said. “Some of our students do have some trauma. Working with those students can make teaching a little bit more difficult, but it’s also a much more rewarding experience.

The work Byers did to create positive changes at his school hasn’t gone unnoticed. He’s part of the implementation team of multiple data-driven school culture initiatives, like the Virginia Tiered Systems of Support, and Positive Behavioral Interventions Systems.

Usually, schools don’t implement those things during a pandemic, and the rewards, like skate nights and pizza parties, require full in-person interaction. Yet, he stayed the course of two years of work to implement the system, and they just started this year.

So as he walks the halls of Highland Springs that are now lined with blue taped arrows and signs to remind kids to socially distance, he walks in the knowledge that he’s helped bring about positive change.

City of Richmond

Ashley Bland went to school for biomedical engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University. Usually, students in the field go on to design software for medicine, and improve technology for health reasons. But when Bland graduated, she became a long-term substitute teacher in RPS, and knew that’s where she was supposed to be.

“I just couldn’t run from my calling. It just kept following me until I pursued it fully,” she said.

After being a substitute, she joined the Richmond Public Schools’ residency program, which prepared her to be a math teacher at what was then Elkhardt Thompson Middle School. She was named 2019 Teacher of the Year at the school, which she said led her to almost decline the nomination for teacher of the year at John B. Cary Middle School, where she now serves as an instructional technology resource teacher.

Then, on May 7, she was told to come to the cafeteria for lunch for an event. She says she was tricked. Her principal told her lunch would be sponsored by the Washington Football Team, and she should wear her “Cary gear” because media would be in attendance. Then, Michael Powell, the principal, called her up to John B. Cary’s podium. Walking in a line was Superintendent Jason Kamras, Mayor Levar Stoney and School Board members Jonathan Young and Stephanie Rizzi.

They told her she was the districtwide Teacher of the Year for RPS, the first under a full virtual year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was very overwhelmed but excited because I know the work my team has had to do, and it’s been sort of a heavy lift. ... They’ve done it,” she said.

Kamras regarded Bland as one of the most shouted-out teachers in his RPS Direct Newsletter since her team has been tasked with much of the technology work that came along with making sure students would have access to their work.

In the Richmond region, after a year of amplified calls for racial justice, Bland is the only Black person named 2021-2022 Teacher of the Year for the region.

While RPS’ teaching workforce is majority Black, Black people make up less than 10% of science, math, engineering and technology workers. When she was in a class for biomedical engineering at VCU, a teacher predicted that just one in three of the students in front of him would graduate. She recalls looking around and noticing that she was one of three Black women in the class.

All three graduated. Bland is a first-generation college student who says that before she applied, she knew nothing of college. While she’s sure her professor might have had good intentions, she said sometimes tough love isn’t necessarily the best approach.

“I feel like the way I approach things a lot of times, it’s not necessarily by trying to give [students] tough love,” she said. “It’s just by showing them that you can be successful, or reminding them that if I can do it, you can do it, too.”

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